COOPERSBURG – Borough Councilman Dennis Balascak and Zoning Officer Larry Andes clashed at Borough Hall Tuesday night in a showdown over the condition of the Gas Mart located at 360 North 3rd Street.
According to Balascak, council members heard Gas Mart had major problems with food preparation and licenses in August. He wanted to know why it took until the middle of October to force the owner to do anything about it. “Why hasn’t it been shut down?”
According to Andes and Health Officer Lee Lilley, the current owner has been serving fresh food without having completed the ServSafe food protection certification course. But though Andes said he and Lilley communicate regularly on borough issues, neither he nor Lilley had known to act on the food preparation problem until very recently.
When Balascak claimed Andes should have acted quickly about the food certification issue, Solicitor Chris Gittinger clarified that the zoning officer is not responsible for food or tobacco licensing issues.
Lilley told the council that the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture does not check up on licenses once they issue them to business owners. Consequently, when new ownership took over Gas Mart, no one knew that Gas Mart was breaking the law. Lilley first observed the discrepancy and asked the owner about his licenses. According to Lilley, the Gas Mart has current licenses in the old owner’s name. Lilley said he notified the state approximately one week ago, and expects a response to take some time.
Still, Balascak called the time lapse unacceptable, calling it an “unsafe” situation that left residents unsure if food was being handled properly. He also pointed out that the cost of a lawsuit by someone harmed by food at the Gas Mart would be much worse than the cost of having to force the business to comply with the law.
Andes reported that electrical issues at the Gas Mart are being worked on, refrigeration units have been removed from the front of the building, and that the person responsible for maintenance said he would get the store in compliance with zoning ordinances. According to Andes, Friday, Oct. 15 is the deadline.
When further pressed about the delay on dealing with the zoning problems, Andes said that due to time restrictions inherent in serving as zoning officer for eight boroughs, he had not sent a letter to the Gas Mart owner until two weeks after he observed the problems. Councilwoman Linda Minarik objected to the long delay, a point with which Mayor Timothy Paashaus also agreed. “He’s busy with seven other boroughs and that really doesn’t pertain to us,” said Paashaus later. Andes offered to readjust his schedule to give Coopersburg a full day, if the council so desired. “I need direction from you guys.”
Balascak repeatedly insisted that Andes “do your job,” and take a “hard-nosed” approach, including the immediate issue of citations. Andes calmly answered Balascak’s demands. Andes said citations from the district justice can cost a business owner $500 per day until he fully complies with the ordinance, plus court costs. According to Andes, this approach makes business owners upset. Based on his ten years of experience, Andes said the “hard-nosed” approach results in drawn-out, confrontational situations with business owners. He said that in 90-95% of cases, property owners are “very receptive” to a phone call or a visit to gently let them know they are in violation. He had not taken a more confrontational approach with Gas Mart because, “if you do, it’ll still be a problem a year from now.”
Paashaus said Gas Mart had “a serious situation” unlike other zoning violators in Coopersburg. Andes estimated that problems at Gas Mart have been “going on for years.”
Council President Gary Hovis reminded the council that problems with another business in Coopersburg took a long time to resolve. Some members feared that businesses would prefer Richland Township or Center Valley if Coopersburg became known as a tough place to do business. Balascak dismissed the notion as something “I’m not buying.”
Balascak also objected to the lack of monthly reports from Andes. Andes told Balascak that he had not been required by the council to submit such reports. Later, after Andes left, Balascak complained at having to pay for the time Andes attended the council meeting. However, according to Hovis and Borough Manager Dawn Kresge, the borough’s contract with Andes’ employer does not include a retainer fee. Balascak said he would like that evening’s bill to go before the appropriations committee.
The next Coopersburg Borough Council meeting is scheduled to be held at Borough Hall at 7 p.m. on Oct. 26.